Family Time at Sleeping Bear Dunes

At first glance, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore looks familiar to kids. The drifting sand, seagulls, and miles of turquoise water all add up to one thing—the ocean.

But then, somewhere—maybe on the 7.4-mile Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive or while rolling down the pile of sand called Dune Climb (dubbed “the sacrificial dune” because it’s the sole heap of sand visitors are allowed to trample)—the kids stop, realize this is landlocked Michigan, and ask, “How did the ocean get here?”

It didn’t. This is Lake Michigan. It’s a lake—albeit a great one—and the water is fresh, not salty, says Lisa Myers, chief of interpretation and visitor services at Sleeping Bear Dunes.

“When my family comes here from New England, they all have to taste the water,” she says. “The area looks like Cape Cod. You can’t believe this isn’t the coast.”

Well, maybe not the Atlantic, Pacific, or Gulf coast, but this national lakeshore was created in 1970 by the federal government to preserve a scenic chunk of this extensive coast—the U.S. shores of the eight-state Great Lakes coastline.

“Playing on the sacrificial dune is like being in a big, huge sandbox,” says Myers, but there’s so much more to the shore. Help kids view the park through a wider lens by walking along one of the 35 miles of sandy Lake Michigan beach.

“With their feet on the sand and in the water, kids can see that there are waves,” says Myers, “but that there are no tides. They can spot swimming otters and beavers, and see the high cliffs with the perched dunes way up top.”

“In winter, they can walk the beaches to see all the ice formations and crashing waves,” she says. “We offer ranger-led snowshoe walks in January and February, where kids can look for animal tracks. And, when it’s windy, they can stand on the Dune Climb and feel the forces of nature. It’s almost geology in motion with the smaller grains of sand moving faster than the bigger ones. The kids can run or roll down the hill, too, which is a lesson in gravity and a whole lot of fun.”

This piece was adapted from 100 Places That Can Change Your Child’s Life by Traveler magazine’s editor in chief, Keith Bellows 


  1. Molly C.
    Glen Arbor, MI
    May 1, 2013, 8:00 pm

    It’s wonderful to see the recognition our area is getting as a family-friendly…and nature-friendly…destination. Please visit our Chamber of Commerce website for visitor info!

  2. The Roaming Boomers
    Scottsdale, AZ
    April 27, 2013, 2:08 pm

    As former Michiganders, we’re huge fans the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Here’s a few photographs from a fairly recent visit:

  3. Ian Faulds
    Bellingham, Washington, United States
    April 26, 2013, 10:12 pm

    I remember going to Sleeping Bear Dunes at ages 8, 13, and 18 and each time I had a blast running down the dune at the Lake Michigan Overlook to touch Lake Michigan. Running (and walking) back up the 450ft was another matter.
    Great memories from a few years ago and a great place for all ages to explore.

    Ian Faulds